If last week's 3-1 win against D.C. United served to ease concerns about Atlanta United's status as one of Major League Soccer's best teams, then Saturday's 4-1 thrashing of the Vancouver Whitecaps helped to completely restore the lofty preseason expectations the second-year team began the season with.
The season-opening loss to the Houston Dynamo is a distant memory now after Josef Martinez's hat trick helped Atlanta dismantle a Whitecaps side that came into the match with a 2-0 record. The Whitecaps are a much more formidable opponent than D.C. United, so Saturday's victory was a much more impressive one, even if it did come with the help of a first-half red card issued to Whitecaps defender Kendall Waston.
It was far from a perfect performance for Tata Martino's men, who spent the first half wasting chance after chance as they overwhelmed Vancouver's defense over and over, only to have wasteful finishing spare the Whitecaps time after time.
It took a Whitecaps own goal by Aaron Maund in the 58th minute to give the home team a cushion, and the 45,003 fans in attendance something to cheer about. Martinez ran onto a perfect Miguel Almiron outlet pass just two minutes later to secure the win.
Martino stuck with the 3-5-2 system he implemented after that ugly season-opening loss to Houston and it worked well once again. Julian Gressel continues to look good in the wingback role, while the midfield continues to look much more balanced with Jeff Larentowicz and Darlington Nagbe stationed behind Miguel Almiron.
Atlanta looked much sharper in the second half on Saturday and their patience was eventually rewarded when Gressel whipped in a low cross that Maund turned into his own net to double the lead. Almiron's lightning-fast attacks are tough enough for a full-strength team to try and stop and the Whitecaps looked powerless to stop them down a man.
Martino will surely hate how his team lost its chance at a shutout, with a simple long ball that Erik Hurtado raced onto before outmuscling Michael Parkhurst and beating Brad Guzan. While it was Parkhurst who was on Hurtado, it was center back partner Leandro Gonzalez Pirez who was caught up field by the long ball, leaving Parkhurst to try and catch Hurtado.
One of Martino's biggest tasks as coach this season will be to try and minimize Gonzalez Pirez's mistakes. As dominating a defender as he can be at times, he still remains susceptible to lapses that can prove costly. That didn't matter on Saturday, but in tighter games and in the playoffs Atlanta won't be able to afford him making the same kind of mistakes.
If there was a memorable highlight for Atlanta's fans it was the final goal of the match, which saw U.S. Under-17 midfielder and fan favorite Andrew Carleton come on and deliver the first MLS assist of his career with an inch-perfect cross to help Martinez score his third goal of the night. Martino has been criticized for not finding Carleton more minutes and the opportunity for a good run-out came on Saturday, with Carleton making the most of his 12-minute outing with that excellent assist.
Saturday's victory sends Atlanta United into a bye week on a high. The time off should allow some players to get healthy, including left back Greg Garza. It will also give Atlanta's front office some time to continue its search for defensive midfield and central defense depth, two needs that remain priorities to be addressed before the close of the current window. As well as the team has played in its past two matches, it is clear Martino needs more options at both positions. With a pair of 34-year-olds in the starting lineup in Parkhurst and Larentowicz, securing some reliable depth is a glaring need.
Those needs aren't causing as much angst as they were when the Dynamo hung four on Atlanta United two weeks ago. That's what two big wins will do for you.